U.S. justices weigh lawfulness of police vehicle searches

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 09, 2018 1:32 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday wrestled with the scope of police authority to search vehicles without warrants in two distinct circumstances: a rental car driven by a man who was not authorized to do so and a motorcycle covered by a tarpaulin and parked on private property.

The court considered whether the rights of defendants in two separate cases, Terrence Byrd and Ryan Collins, were violated under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Based on the two hours of oral arguments on Tuesday it was unclear how the nine justices will rule. Many of the justices asked questions about the circumstances under which police would have leeway to conduct searches without a court-issued warrant.

The legal questions also prompted some colorful exchanges, with Chief Justice John Roberts at one point citing the distinctive red sports car featured in the 1986 comedy film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Both defendants were convicted of criminal offenses based on evidence obtained from the searches and are seeking to have that evidence thrown out.

Byrd was stopped in Pennsylvania in September 2014 driving a car his girlfriend had rented. Police said they could search the car without his consent because he was not listed on the rental agreement. The officers found heroin and a bulletproof vest in the car. Byrd pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of both items on condition that he could challenge the search.

In the motorcycle case, the question is whether the evidence an officer obtained when he walked onto private property in Virginia to inspect the motorcycle, which was parked a few feet from a house, should be thrown out. The officers were seeking to locate the owner of the vehicle, Collins, who had on two occasions evaded police pursuit. Collins was later convicted of receiving stolen property.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)